Mama Mia

Recently I had cause to spend a significant amount of time with my mom. It was time well spent; I love my mom and haven’t always taken the time to connect with her that I should have. Yet, some of the time was really rough because I am looking at our relationship through a lens that is coming more and more into focus. From being with her, I have developed a better understanding of who I am.

Now, I will preface the rest of this blog with the admission that I know that my mom did the best that she absolutely could in raising me. Really I have little to complain about. I was loved and provided for very well, but the reality is that who we are as people influences our parenting behaviors and hence affects our children. For better and for worse. It’s happening in my household. Despite my best efforts, I am going to pass on some sort of damage to my daughter, who will thus have to allow Christ to walk with her and sort things out. Hopefully she’ll tackle this a lot sooner than I have.

Which takes me to my mom. Not sure what it is about that generation, or at least those of that generation that I have come in contact with. They don’t talk about their issues, you smooth over them or ignore them. I’m not exactly sure if it is because you are putting on your best face for all to see, or if it is from an attitude of you don’t complain, just make the best of what you have. Either way, neither of my parents tend to talk about their crap. No counselor. No priest. No one. Mom may talk to relatives, but it is usually about what is wrong with others. Not a lot of self examination going on.

Case in point from our time together: mom was not included in a family photo opportunity on another trip and she felt slighted. When I asked if she had mentioned that she wanted to be in the photo her response was a stout “They should have known enough to ask.” Yet, when planning a trip for later this year with some cousins and was subsequently confronted about not asking some others, her response was “I didn’t leave you out, all you had to do was ask to join us.”

And that is the way things roll. There is a constant need for my mother to be right, to sit on top. In almost any situation. To the point that she’ll make up things that “they said” or that “she read”, and she’ll state things with such authority that it is possible she really believes it is true. If you confront her on the mistake, rarely will she just admit “oh, I didn’t know that“, she’ll argue until the ship sinks.

Yet, what I’ve noticed in the life of my mother is that the ship sinking rarely happens. The people around her try hard not to upset her. At least that is true of me and my dad.

So the normal for the relationship has become to figure out how not to disturb the equilibrium – how to make sure she does not get upset. This is made all the more difficult because she will not tell you what she wants, you have to guess. A simple for instance, unloading the car I offered to take one of the bags mom was carrying. She replied “no, I’m fine“. But in walking to the elevator, it was clear she was not fine. Problem was, I asked if she wanted help rather than just knowing. Her huffs and puffs made it clear I had done the wrong thing.

Now, if I wanted to tear my mom down, I could go on and on. Hurt is not my intent. Mom has just never confronted her pride. She’s a middle child striving to be noticed. There is baggage that she carries that I do need to understand. My reasoning for telling you what I did is so you can see what I’ve learned about myself.

I am susceptible to feminine manipulation. Not so much from crowd-level relationships, but as relationships get closer it becomes more noticeable. I don’t want to upset my mom. So, I guess it is ‘normal’ that this ingrained behavior became a long-standing element of my marriage as well. I’ve not wanted to upset my wife.

So my inclination is to respond to her distance by trying to pursue and make her happy. Then I respond to my wife’s verbal barrages by doing what I can to placate her. Either way I feel invisible and unheard. Like a schoolboy being dismissed from the Principal’s office. I became timid about the things I wanted to do. I’ve given up sports, regular nights out with the guys, and being out of the house too much. My efforts to shield my wife from being upset have led to an unhealthy arrangement where we are both always going in the same direction. My passivity has had the unintended impact of her becoming accustomed relief from emotional discomfort through my actions.

Even in the times where I have attempted to do my own thing and differentiate between us (pursuing vocational ministry for one), it has fallen flat and failed because of my passivity. I’d only go so for before her being upset was too much.

I’m reading the book Generation to Generation about family and church leadership systems, and I came across this sentence that has spoken to me in a rather profound way:

“Few of us are irreparably hurt by upset.”

I have been coming to that realization slowly but surely before reading that line, but there is was in black and white. Who knew? I don’t think I did. While I’m not trying to find ways to upset anyone (that would actually be funny in a Monty Python sort of way), that one sentence is reshaping my interactions with my wife and mother.

If only it were that easy to change a family system. Seems it is just a touch more complicated than that. My slow improvement as I journey toward strength does not necessarily lead my wife to immediate slow improvement of her own. In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. As I gradually am able to stop being a shield for her, she has developed strategies to cope with her upsettedness. For our marriage, the immediate impact has been a perspective that things are getting worse, not better.

While I’ve been very conscious of my need to pursue strength for the sake of my marriage, I did not really have any idea that my interactions with my mom (and dad, but this blog is Mama Mia) would still be putting a stress on my marriage relationship. We don’t live with my family after all!

Yet, Family relationships are a ‘closed’ system, meaning stress in one part of the system will affect the other parts as well. Not only does my mother-son relationship influence the foundations of my behavior, it affects my wife’s perceptions of me as a man as well as places stress on her as she become exposed to my mother’s manipulation.

Without God, this journey would not be possible. I’d be overwhelmed with the amount of change that needed to take place in seemingly unrelated relationships. Right now, though, I feel very certain that I’m on the right path. Trusting God with the outcomes as I finally allow myself to be shaped into the man He intended all along. I can only guess where all of this is going to lead, but I am more and more thankful for the journey and for God’s grace in the second chance.

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